By Evelyn Rupert
Rockbridge area taxpayers are wasting money running antiquated heating and lighting systems in aging public buildings, according to energy use auditors.
But to lower utility bills, cash-strapped city and county governments need to put up a big initial investment, and savings might not be seen for more than 10 years.
To help localities lower energy costs on tight budgets, the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission, which provides energy and land use guidance for five counties including Rockbridge, created the Shenandoah Valley Regional Energy Efficiency Strategy in 2010.
The commission received $400,000 in funding for the strategy from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
The goal of the strategy is “to reduce the annual energy costs in public buildings throughout the region while also reducing the actual energy usage and carbon footprint,” said Bonnie Riedesel, executive director of the Shenandoah commission.
Last fall, the commission hired architects from Spectrum Design, an architecture and engineering firm in Roanoke, to examine six public buildings used by Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge
County. The company evaluated the buildings’ current energy use, from water heaters to insulation.
Spectrum Design evaluated Lexington’s police station and city hall, the fire station on South Main Street, and the former Rescue Squad building on Spotswood Drive, said Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad. The city still owns the Rescue Squad building, but it is occupied by the Rockbridge Area Relief Association.
The company suggested putting thermostats behind locked boxes, installing light sensors, resealing ductwork and replacing windows. The cost of the recommended changes in Lexington totals almost $200,000.
“It’s an investment to reduce future operating costs, ” Ellestad said.
To help ease the strain these improvements would place on budgets, the commission plans to distribute $240,000 in grants, according to Shenandoah commission documents. Local communities would also have to pitch in money.
Buena Vista, Lexington and Rockbridge County have already gotten $66,000 of that money.
Last year, Lexington city officials used $22,000 of grant money to replace the roof of the Rescue Squad building, which was in poor condition, Ellestad said. The total cost for the project was about $60,000; the city tapped into its reserves to make up the difference.
“The existing roof was shot. It had numerous leaks and it was well over 20 years old,” Ellestad said. The new roof has four new layers of insulation.
Buena Vista plans to spend almost all of a $22,000 commission grant to upgrade the heating and air conditioning at its city courthouse this spring, said Buena Vista Public Works Director Mike Cosby.
The city is to replace parts of the 50-year-old heating system with more efficient units that use natural gas, Cosby said.
The upgrade is just a start, Cosby added; the courthouse needs a lot more work, including window replacement.
“We had to pick what we thought was the most realistic and appropriate,” he said.
Rockbridge County will use its $22,000 of commission grant money to upgrade lighting in the administration building. County officials chose the new lights over a new heating system, insulation and windows.
“It’s the only thing we could afford right now,” said Rockbridge County Inspector Kenny Wilson. “A new heating system costs megabucks.”
It’s a challenge getting local officials to make energy issues a priority, considering all the other budget shortfalls they face, said Robert Huff, regional planner with the Shenandoah Commission.
“With limited budget and staff time,” Huff said, “it’s putting something else on local people’s plate.”